My recent book, The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion, and Human Dignity (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013), was dedicated to Father Jack Sproule, a priest who served in the Vancouver Island diocese while I was growing up. The following essay I wrote about Jack appears in the winter edition of the Island Catholic News….
On March 13, 2013, the day Jorge Bergoglio became Francis I, CBC Television News invited me and a handful of practicing Roman Catholics to comment on what kind of pope he might turn out to be. It was a peculiar experiment in TV punditry: although the five or six of us were perfectly willing to participate in a panel discussion, the producers decided to interview us individually, one after another. The only time we sat around a table together was off camera, as we awaited our respective turns with host Ian Hanomansingh.
In the waiting room, a flat-screen TV ran a broadcast loop of Newsworld’s coverage of the conclave, including a short clip about the newly elected pope. At one point, our small talk having wound down, we could hear the voiceover commentary: “…While some call him a moderate, Bergoglio is known to be conservative on female ordination, abortion, birth control and homosexuality.” In response to this, a cleric behind me blurted out, “Well, duh: he’s Catholic!”
In a room full of Protestants, such a tossed-off remark would come off as critically dismissive irony. But since this was a room full of Catholics (including my own lapsed self), it came off as triumphalist. What the cleric was implying, with casual arrogance, was that the new pope’s on-the-record positions regarding hot button issues should come as no surprise because they were the right positions; that Bergoglio would have been a poor choice for pope had his views diverged even an inch from the Vatican line. Sure enough, there were chuckles of right-wing solidarity from the others in the room – all of them members of the Vancouver archdiocese.
Since I was next in line to be interviewed and was the token dissident, I had no interest in arguing with this group. But I couldn’t help wondering what my favourite priest would say, if he were in the room. How might Father Jack Sproule respond to the self-congratulatory sarcasm of a throwaway line about the new pope’s presumed biases? What fun might Jack have with a cleric who evidently subscribed so unquestioningly to the theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that he actually preferred a Church environment that strictly enforces only the narrowest definition of what it means to be Roman Catholic?
There was no doubt in my mind: Jack would enjoy himself immensely at the poor fellow’s expense.
Jack Sproule arrived at St. Peter’s Parish in 1980, the year I turned seventeen. At that age, I still attended Mass with my parents and a few of my six siblings; the church still had a prominent place in our lives. During the Seventies, St. Peter’s had experienced a revolving door of priests, and the two before – Jack Alan Alvare and Joe Ponic – I was sad to see go. What would this new priest from Montreal – a stern-looking fellow with horn-rimmed glasses and a bookish, almost nerdy expression – be like? Appearances were deceiving, in Jack’s case.
Within a short time, it was clear that Rev. John Sproule was no shrinking violet or aloof intellectual. The worst he could be accused of was a New Age earnestness about the possibilities of the priestly calling. Like Alvare and Ponic, Jack was not the kind of priest who talked down to parishioners or placed himself in an exalted position.
His was a friendly presence that sought to make Christ’s mission relevant to people’s lives; parishioners were fellow Catholics who, like him, were free to be playful and creative about their spirituality. In this, he saw his role as more facilitator than Big Daddy. Nothing disappointed him more as a priest than for someone to come up and ask, “What should I do, Father?” as if he had all the answers. “I don’t know. What do you think you should do?” was often his reply, leaving the person gobsmacked. Jack was all about self-empowerment.
Jack is a very funny man, and shock humour has always been part of his arsenal. While active in the priesthood, he was notorious for hating priests’ meetings, which he saw as too bureaucratic and a waste of time. He once told me that he walked out of a few, pleading boredom. What excites him is the free flow of ideas.
Jack had been a seminary professor for decades. So while he knows all the saints and great Catholic thinkers – theologically, he could run circles around most conservatives and could have made nice Jesuitical rejoinders to the smarty pants cleric in the CBC studio – he also reads other religious texts, philosophy, poetry, and mysticism, devouring everything from Hopi Indian myth to Wiccan feminism. At a time when John Paul II and his trusted deputy, Cardinal Ratzinger, were leading a rearguard action against Vatican II reforms, Jack functioned as a kind of Trickster figure in the church, teasing the right wing with his own spiritual counteroffensive.
To be sure, some Island Catholics did not know what to make of his long and fruitful association with the psychiatrists Jock McKeon and the late Bennett Wong. At their Haven-by-the-Sea retreat centre on Gabriola Island, encounter group sessions such as “Come Alive” used gestalt-like practices to help participants gain greater self-awareness, including about the ways many had allowed their religion to shut them down emotionally, physically, and even spiritually.
Perhaps this was what conservative Catholics found so threatening about Jack’s involvement with Haven, including his decision to present his own workshops there. But there was nothing “un-Catholic” about what he was doing. On the contrary, Jack’s many supporters in the diocese have always insisted that he became a more effective priest from the moment he met Ben and Jock. Whether at Haven or St. Peter’s (and later St. Elizabeth’s, Saanich Peninsula Parish), Jack’s mission as a Roman Catholic priest was profound and revolutionary. He was not trying to turn people away from their religion; he was trying to help them take ownership of it by redefining what it meant in their lives.
Jack had seen far too many Catholics respond to the word of Rome with a kind of slavish devotion and mindless obedience that had made them unhappy; an involuntary, almost Pavlovian reflex caused by a lifetime of institutional conditioning. Through these people, he had seen the wreckage of a rules-obsessed church up close: alcoholism, depression, spousal abuse, marriage breakdown, and even child abuse and molestation were most common among those who considered themselves good Catholics but found the pressure to conform to Vatican orthodoxy overwhelming. For these people especially, Jack wanted faith itself to become a conscious act of the will – the opposite of passive submission.
This meant developing a personal concept of Christ and a sense of responsibility for one’s own emotional and intellectual baggage. It meant confronting the wounds one has suffered, moving on from them, and embracing new life. Jack had lots of time for parishioners who were seeking change and growth in their lives and just needed help making the breakthrough. He had less time for those who, having already seen the way, preferred to wallow in their wounds – a state Jack regarded as a kind of infantile nostalgia.
He hates nostalgia and can be quite abrupt in tuning someone out the moment he feels a conversation going that way. I’ve never heard him talk about life after death, but he sure talks a lot about the living dead: people stuck in their old paradigms and patterns, dominated by fear, or too enthralled by the forces of power and control in their lives to risk venturing into the unknown. Not surprisingly, he counts many of his fellow priests among the living dead.
During the spring of 1988, I was venturing into the unknown myself. Tired of pretending to be heterosexual (which had become its own form of living death), I had left the church a year earlier, thanks in part to the encyclicals of Cardinal Ratzinger. Now, after ten years of denial, I was beginning to peek out the closet door. Despite having abandoned the pews, I decided one day that I should tell my favourite priest about this change in my life.
Unlike most “confessions,” this one would not concern matters of guilt; nor would it take place within the musty, claustrophobic confines of the church confessional booth. Instead, it was in the sunlit garden of my brother’s home in New Westminster, where Jack was officiating at the christening of my second niece, that we sat down and I told him I was gay; that I would no longer pretend otherwise.
Jack’s face lit up. He smiled, took my hands, and said: “This is wonderful! Now you are free to be who you really are. You are coming alive. Welcome to your new life!”
Before deciding to tell him, I knew that Jack would be accepting, empathic, compassionate, and eloquent. But I had no idea he would respond with such enthusiasm. It was as if the life passage I had just announced deserved its own celebration rite, on par with my niece’s christening. Or a bar mitzvah. (A coming out party would have been fabulous, now that I think of it. Funny that it took a priest, of all people, to inspire the thought. But that was Jack’s creativity at work.)
Apart from joking that our family had just become more interesting as a result of my disclosure, Jack said he had suspected I was hiding something in recent conversations but didn’t want to force the issue because I appeared to be close to resolving it. Twenty-five years after that “coming out” moment, I cannot think of a more appropriate response, or one with more integrity by a Roman Catholic priest, than Jack’s response that day.
From that moment on, I was no longer the son of my parents talking to his former priest. I was now an accountable adult, worthy of Jack’s friendship. Throughout the Nineties, as my sense of spirituality evolved into something more humanistic and toward the atheistic, the subject of God became less relevant to our conversations. With Jack, it was more interesting to explore the potential of the self-examined life, the authentic and honest life, regardless of theisms. Jack is both a good listener and a fine raconteur, so talking with him is a joy. Nothing is off limits: politics, religion, sex – the many wonders of human behaviour.
During the Nineties, we agonized over Ratzinger’s search-and-destroy mission against any and all remnants of Vatican II thought. I felt Jack’s pain over the many people he admired who were being victimized by the ‘New Inquisition’. And, like him, I was shocked and appalled in April 2005, when Ratzinger appeared on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square as John Paul II’s successor. The only consolation for Jack was that, having retired the previous year, he would never have to serve as a priest under God’s Rottweiler.
That was nearly a decade ago. In more recent years, Jack has been living in a mid-Island care home where, little by little, the ravages of Alzheimer’s take their toll. When old friends arrive for a visit, he often appears unkempt – indifferent to personal grooming. He cannot remember friends’ names or the last time they came to see him (sometimes why they came to see him), or even conversations they may have had on the phone the previous day.
He will ask where you live and how long you’re staying in town, and then repeat the questions many times after that. But he still has his physical health. And, every now and then, there are flashes of the old Jack so many of us know and love.
Over a cup of coffee during a recent visit, there is a gleam in his eye, and that mischievous grin, followed by a typical one-liner that reveals he has caught every moment of a conversation by two friends sitting with him.
“Oh God, what a bore!” he laughs, responding to a neoconservative critique of my book that I have shared with his other visitor.
The old Trickster strikes again.